Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Veracruz - Capital of Mexico's Third Race

"Here in Veracruz we have three races - Spanish, Indian, and Black with the blood of Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria" - Taxi Driver in Veracruz, Mexico
The Zocalo in Veracruz
Statue of Yanga
The first time I visited Veracruz was for Carnavale 2011, the little known celebration is actually one of the biggest in Latin America. Outside of the West Indian Parade in Brooklyn, I had never experienced such a thing. Carnavale here is fantastic, as soon as you set foot in the city you are greeted by smiles, music, and dancing. Before moving to Mexico I did a google search on "Blacks in Mexico" hoping to find some semblance of home. What I found instead was an interesting (if not alltogether publicized) history of black slave descendants in Veracruz and also Costa Chica on Mexico's Pacific coast. I put Veracruz on my MUST DO list and embarked on my 4 hour journey from Mexico City 3 months later.

Contrary to Wikipedia's belief that most Afro-Mexicans have forgotten their African heritage, Veracruzanos celebrate the diversity of their region and their ties to both Africa and Cuba. From African themed restaurants to the celebration of Yanga (an escaped slave who founded the first free settlement for blacks in the Americas) - the people of Veracruz are very fond of their storied history as the first port of Mexico.
Chiquitas with Afros @ Carnavale 2011

Hawaiian Themed Carnavale Truck
 I came to Carnivale with my Senegalese friend Ndeye Ndack and we were overwhelmed by the hospitality afforded to us, accustomed to long stares in Mexico City, we were pleasantly surprised by the warmth of Veracruzanos. Even with the intensity of the huge music trucks and dancers during the parade, people who spotted us from the floats shouted Negritas and Morenas!!!! from the top with huge applause and even ran to the stands to grab us and dance in the streets.

Fresh Seafood @ El Negro del Estero
After Carnavale, Veracruz had won my heart but I had to go back again to check out the city when it's quiet. Last weekend, I quickly learned that Veracruz is NEVER quiet, even when the seasonal "Norte" winds whip upon the coastline, the city still feels more Havana and less DF. On the weekends, each square in the centro is filled with bands, jarachas, and salsa dancers. If you're familiar with the song "La Bamba" you can imagine the air here - check out an article on the songs' origens in Veracruz here. Music and the best mariscos (seafood) in Mexico permeate the city. We had already scoped out dinner at a place called "El Negro del Estero" from out last visit that has hands down the freshest seafood I've had in my life and I'm from Long Island! We checked out La Casona, one of the biggest nightclubs in the city but were dismayed when the music turned from reggaton and merengue to Mexican rock (which I could do without lol). We quickly moved to a local bar next door and within minutes I was hoisted onstage for a dance contest. The contestants were myself, a beautiful Afro Veracruzana, and another young lady. They saved me for last (I think my curly fro gave them high expectations) and even served up "Get Busy" by Sean Paul to inspire some moves from me. Needless to say I walked off stage a ganadora with a bottle of tequila and bucket of coronas as my prize.

Fresh coconut water on the beach

The next day we hit the beach, grabbed some lunch and headed to the centro to shop at the market and check out some of the folk dance shows in the zocalo. My French counterpart remarked that the dance of the Jarochas reminded her of a loose flamenco, to me the rapid footwork and hip movements looked more Caribbean, it's probably a mix of both! We ate dinner in the Zocalo at an amazing little place that was covered with photos from Veracruz Carnavale's heydey. The owner was a man in his 70's that was singing and moving his hips with every step. We again dined on mariscos but this time octopus in ink which was absolutely delicious. We finished the night with rounds of Pina Coladas (in the style of Puerto Rice as the sign indicated) and headed back to our hotel.

Carnavale's Heydey
Beyond the city, the state of Veracruz is also known for it's nature adventures, it has some of the best rapids in Mexico. We woke up at 8am and drove about an hour and a half north near Xalapa, Mexico to experience whitewater rafting here for ourselves. I had only been once in West Virginia but this trip blew that one out of the water. I'm not sure if it was the scenery or our witty guide but we had a blast. The rapids were intense enough to leave us soaked but not scared. We even finished our trip in hot sulfur springs which were stinky but indeed a great way to end a long weekend.

Not the government-created tourist towns of Acapulco and Cancun, Veracruz is an oft forgotten gem on the Mexico tourist scene.Carnaval dates for 2012 are February 12-22, I suggest a vacation to the city and surrounding state for a taste of Mexico that doesn't dominate the airwaves.


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